Towards a 20th Century History of Relationships between Theatre and Neuroscience

Vers une Histoire des Relations entre Théâtre et Neurosciences au XXe Siècle

Gabriele Sofia About the author

ABSTRACT

This article considers some preliminary reflections in view of a 20th century theatre-and-neuroscience history. Up to now, the history of the 20th century theatre has been too fragmentary and irregular, missing out on the subterranean links which, either directly or indirectly, bound different experiences. The article aims to put in evidence the recurrent problems of these encounters. The hypothesis of the essay concerns the possibility of gathering and grouping a great part of the relationships between theatre and neuroscience around four trajectories: the physiology of action, the physiology of emotions, ethology, and studies on the spectator's perception.

Keywords:
Theatre History; Neuroscience; Physiology; Ethology; Spectator

RÉSUMÉ

L'objectif de l'article est de poser des hypothèses de départ et des réflexions en vue d'une histoire du théâtre et des neurosciences au XXe siècle. L'historiographie du théâtre du XXe siècle a considéré jusqu'ici que ces relations étaient trop fragmentées et hétérogènes et n'a pas su voir les liens souterrains, directs et indirects entre ces diverses expériences. Le but de l'article est de mettre en évidence les problèmes récurrents de ces rencontres. L'article réfléchit donc sur la possibilité de rassembler la plus part des rencontre entre théâtre and neurosciences autour de quatre thèmes principales: la physiologies de l'action, la physiologie des émotions, l'éthologie et les études sur la perception du spectateur.

Mots-clés:
Histoire du Théâtre; Neurosciences; Physiologie; Éthologie; Spectateur

RESUMO

Este artigo aborda algumas reflexões preliminares referentes à história do teatro e da neurociência no século XX. Até agora, a história do teatro no século XX era demasiadamente fragmentada e irregular, perdendo-se nas conexões subterrâneas que, direta ou indiretamente, ligavam diferentes experiências. O artigo pretende colocar em evidência os problemas recorrentes desses encontros. A hipótese do ensaio refere-se à possibilidade de reunir e agrupar grande parte das relações entre teatro e neurociência em torno de quatro trajetórias: a fisiologia da ação, a fisiologia das emoções, a etologia e os estudos sobre a percepção do espectador.

Palavras-chave:
História do Teatro; Neurociência; Fisiologia; Etologia; Espectador

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  • 1
    The author wants to thank Victor Jacono for the translation he made from the Italian (unpublished) version of this article.
  • 2
    A first attempt at a historical reconstruction was made by Rhonda Blair in the chapter The Twentieth-Century Heritage of her book The Actor, Image, and Action: Acting and Cognitive Neuroscience (2008). The first part (103 pages) of my doctoral thesis (Sofia, 2011) is totally dedicated to a historical reconnaissance. In a way, such doctoral research could be regarded as a preparation to the observations and hypothesis which will be put forward in the present article.
  • 3
    Although not always present, such relationships have frequently influenced theatre theory and practice in equal measure (Mariti, 1993; Pradier, 1997).
  • 4
    In fact, the first courses on theatre and neuroscience are held in 1994 by John Emigh at Brown University's Department of Performance Studies (Emigh, 2002). In the same year, at the University of Malta, theatre director and scholar John Schranz and neuroscientist Richard Muscat started joint lectures entitled Neuroscience, Bodymind and the Actor.
  • 5
    For instance, I am referring to the birth of Ethnoscenology (Pradier, 1996) or the launching of the xHCA programme (Schranz, 2001; 2007).
  • 6
    Everyday spontaneity, as it is known, is compromised onstage because the actor cannot simply perform his score of actions, but also has to stimulate, hold, and sustain the spectator's attention. Such double intention, or "dilated intention" (Sofia, 2013b), requires neuro-motor routines which are different from those engaged in everyday life.
  • 7
    Gallagher has defined body schema as "A non-conscious system of processes which constantly regulate posture and movement - a system of sensory-motor capacities functioning below the threshold of awareness and not in need of perceptive monitoring" (2005, p. 234). On the relevance of research into body schema for studies on the actor see Sofia (2013c).
  • 8
    "In all the other art forms, the material is exterior to the creator, and in a way a certain struggle between subject and object is produced. On the contrary, in the art of theatre, the actor works upon a material which resides inside him. This kind of split requires that a particular attention is brought to the centre, that is to the actor's brain" (Meyerchol'd, 1980a, p. 93).
  • 9
    For an account of Bernstein's personal and scientific vicissitudes, see the essay N.A. Bernstein: The Reformer of Neuroscience (Feigenberg; Latash, 1996).
  • 10
    "Eisenstein relates to conclusions on biomechanics in the yet unpublished writings on expressive movement, a theory he had worked upon in the 1920s in relation to questions on the actor's movement onstage. Adopting them only in part, he rounded up such conclusions with his own idea that movement was organised according to different strata. Bernstein had also reached an analogous conclusion on the basis of experimental data. Starting from studies on biomechanics, he had subsequently elaborated a theory on the structure of movement, based above all on the presence of a multiplicity of levels, also linked to the various evolutionary chronological stages of nervous centres; it is the same 'multiplicity of strata' which Eisenstein hinted at in his writings on the theory of expressive movement" (Ivanov, 1982, p. 322).
  • 11
    Exactly in 1929 Eisenstein was invited by Wolfgang Köhler to hold a cycle of lectures for the Psychology Institute at the University of Berlin. Moreover, in the famous essay on Expressive Movement, written jointly with the director Tretiakov (Eisenstein; Tretiakov, 1981) Eisenstein refers a number of times to the French physiologist Benjamin Duchenne and to his famous phrase "{...} there are no isolated muscular actions in nature" (Duchenne, 1885), once again echoing one of Bernstein's (and Meyerhold's) fundamental lessons, i.e. the need for the whole body to cooperate synergetically even in the realization of the smallest movement.
  • 12
    Vygotsky in particular attempted to study the actor's creative mechanisms starting from an opposite point of view to that of reflexology (Vygotsky, 1932).
  • 13
    Eisenstein, for instance, was intrigued by the case of Solomon Shereshevsky, a patient on whom Luria had written a book (1968). In fact, Shereshevsky became famous for his extraordinary mnemonic abilities based on synesthetic mechanisms of visualization of numbers and words. As Ivanov recalls: "While tackling the problem of syncretic art, which in the 1930s and 1940s had interested him in relation to the issues of sound and colours in cinema, Eisenstein, together with two friends of his, the psychologists Vygotsky and Luria, studied the phenomena of synesthetic perception, drawing upon the example of a unique personality, Solomon Shereshevsky. Such observations of a psychological nature would later serve him to resolve other aesthetic problems" (1982, p. 237). In 1998, the story of Solomon Shereshevski and the book by Luria became the subject of Peter Brook's play Je suis en Phénomène.
  • 14
    Binet would further his studies and publish essays on the psychology of playwrights (1903).
  • 15
    See Autant-Mathieu (2005; 2007a; 2007b); Hamos-Siréjols (2007); Benedetti (1982); Carnike (2009); and Blair (2008).
  • 16
    Bloch et al (1972) and Bloch et al (1973).
  • 17
    1985, for instance, is the year in which Joseph Roach published The Player's Passion (1985). In that same period in France, Jean-Marie Pradier first organizes the conference on Théâtre et Sciences de la Vie (1984) and then the summer seminars entitled Pratiques Spectaculaires et Sciences de la Vie (1989) and Emotions et Complexité (1991), which saw the participation, among others, of Eugenio Barba, Henri Laborit, Susana Bloch, and John Emigh (Pradier, 1990; 1993).
  • 18
    The observations which Darwin proposed on natural selection have shown that in the majority of species, the struggle for survival does not take place between different species but among members of the same species, generally among members of the same sex intending to seduce members of the opposite sex. Consequently, it is not necessarily the strongest who win, but those who are more able to exhibit the most effective techniques of seduction, that is those techniques which better attain a determined effect on the specimen to attract for mating. Hence the obvious importance, at a biological-evolutionistic level, of an element that is intimately related to the work of the actor: seduction. It is not by chance that the third part of Darwin's book focuses precisely on the processes of sexual selection (and therefore also on the necessity of seduction) in humans (Pradier, 2009). Darwin's studies inspired another important Russian director, Nicolai Evreinov, in the formulation of what he defined as the "principle of theatricality" articulated in the essay Apologija Teatral'nosti (published in Utro in St. Petersburg on 8th of September 1908) and later in the book entitled The Theatre in Life (Evreinov, 1929; Carnicke, 1981).
  • 19
    For further information on the conference see Pradier (1979).
  • 20
    The model of the triune brain became fashionable again in the 1980s thanks to Carl Segan's best-seller The Dragons of Eden: speculations on the evolution of human intelligence (1977).
  • 21
    See Gershon (1999). Schechner used Gershon's studies in relation to his notion of rasaesthetic (Schechner, 2001). For further information about the relation between Grotowski and the sciences see Pradier (2013).

Publication Dates

  • Publication in this collection
    Aug 2014

History

  • Received
    30 Nov 2013
  • Accepted
    01 Feb 2014
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